Alumni In Conversation
Comedy to the rescue 棟篤笑闖天下Two comics team up to bring a lighter touch to life
To Vivek Mahbubani, it was the need to be in control of his own working hours that set him off on his career as a comedian. “I used to dream about not needing to wake up before 9am every morning to get ready for work!” he said. Those dreams included not just ﬂexible working hours, but also a job where he could fully utilise his unconventionality and imagination. The answer? Stand-up comedy.
Initially, Vivek went into website design following his graduation from CityU, and only performed stand-up shows in his free time. Eventually, he decided the latter was actually his dream vocation. In 2017, he quit his job to become the only bilingual stand-up local comedian proﬁcient in both Cantonese and English.
Like Vivek, CityU graduate Tim Chan Lok-tim felt something was missing from his life as an IT professional. In 2018, he decided to follow his passion and became a stand-up comedian.
While a drastic change, the move was not completely unexpected given that Tim had taken part in his ﬁrst stand-up comedy competition in his second year at CityU. The competition also had the great beneﬁt of bringing him together with Vivek, the guest performer at the event. The encounter proved to be the start of their working partnership. In 2011, they formed Viveknfriends with Matina, another well-known stand-up comedian. In 2017, they renamed themselves Hall of Laughs.
Vivek's positive attitude earned him a Hong Kong Spirit Ambassador Prize in 2013 and an Outstanding Young Person Award in 2018, being recognised as a great role model for the next generation. His goal is to bring hope to Hong Kong through stand-up comedy.
Overcoming not-so-funny momentsTheir journey from amateur artistes to full-time stand-up comedians was not all fun and laughter.
Asked if they have had audiences who did not react well to them, the pair answered in unison: “Of course!” While stand-up comedy is simple in its performance style, they explained, that is also what makes it so difﬁcult to engage the audience and get them to laugh. The reaction of those watching the show gives them real-time feedback as to whether they have pulled off a routine successfully or not.
A show's outcome also usually depends on several other external factors, for example, venue, lighting, audio equipment, social situation, and the audience's mood, among others. That's why, if circumstances permit, the duo always go to the performance venue beforehand to assess the surroundings to come up with “preventive measures”. For, if something suddenly happens during the show, the duo need to be able to control the situation by reassuring the audience, and keeping their attention focused on the comedians and the punchlines.
Some people say comedy is actually a combination of tragedy and the passage of time. Years ago, my mother passed away, and that gave me better insight into the significance of stand-up comedy. I understood that no matter how hard today may be, one should always brave the storm with anticipation and enthusiasm
Trick of the tradeThe two comics often perform together overseas, including at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival – considered one of the top three comedy events in the world – every year since 2017. The Melbourne Festival lasts for four weeks, attracting tens of thousands of comedy lovers from around the world. Performers' reputation, skill, and the audience's reaction are all reﬂected in ticket sales, making it a major test of a comedian's appeal.
But fear turned to good fortune once they started their shows. “The audience loved us so much that ticket sales towards the end of our run picked up and, in total, an average of 80% of our seats were sold. We did not suffer any loss, gained a lot of experience, broadened our horizons, and raised the standard of our performance,” Tim said.
Vivek added: “Every time we go to a new country, I observe in minute detail how the people there go about their lives to understand their temperament and habits, and then adjust our performance for a better reaction. For example, in multicultural Malaysia, audiences are very receptive to jokes about different races. As an ethnic Indian born and bred in Hong Kong, I have an afﬁnity for cross-cultural subjects. This makes it easier for me to ﬁnd relevant material to use. Australian audiences, on the other hand, prefer jokes that are more thought-provoking and subtle. This means we have to spend more time planning how to express ourselves and working out the ﬁner points of our jokes.”
Everyone can be a comedianWhat about Hong Kong audiences? “As with most locations with majority ethnic Chinese audiences, Hong Kong show-goers are generally more reserved and can take a while to become fully engaged,” Tim said. “At the same time, they may have the impression that only celebrity entertainers can perform stand-up comedy. We are determined to overturn that notion! Vivek and I both believe everyone has a sense of humour and potential to perform. The only thing to worry about is whether you have the guts to go on stage. In light of this, we have added an 'open mic' session to our monthly performances that encourages those wanting to test their skills to come on stage, speak for a few minutes, and gain courage and experience.”
Aren't they afraid of cultivating competitors who may affect their bottom line in doing this? “We are too good to worry about things like that!” Vivek said, with a laugh. In fact, the pair are ﬁrm believers that competition acts as a driving force that helps them improve.
I was diagnosed with cancer the year after my graduation, but I underwent treatment and managed to beat the disease. This close brush with death taught me the truth of the saying, ‘time and tide wait for no man'. Never hesitate in pursuit of your dreams
Bringing joy to the worldWhen talking about future goals, the pair said that after creating a stand-up comedy platform that gathers like-minded individuals together, their next step will be to attract larger audiences and turn stand-up comedy into a popular form of entertainment in Hong Kong, much like going to the cinema or karaoke. “Life in Hong Kong is busier compared with other cities, and people here don't know how to relax properly,” Vivek said. “We hope more Hong Kong people can appreciate stand-up comedy skits and, as a result, bring more joy and laughter to their lives.”
Tim performing a new local show on "Laughter and Reality" at the Hong Kong International Laugh Festival.
Vivek ﬁrst attended the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2015 as a spectator to see how it worked and was greatly impressed. The following year, he participated as an English-speaking performer, receiving enthusiastic audience support. In 2017, he performed in Cantonese with his comic partner Tim at the world-class festival for the ﬁrst time.